This is the first, of a number of articles, that describe how to adopt an alternative magic system. Of all the various house rules out there, the most common are probably those that relate to the spell system. Recently, while reading posts on various forums, I heard a number of people ask, in one form or another, how to adopt a new system so I thought it might make a good series of articles.

What is Vancian Magic

Vancian magic refers to the magic system described by Jack Vance in his Dying Earth series, which is the basis of the spell system used in D&D. Each morning, the wizard memorizes a number of spells from her spell book. Once prepared, she need only speak a few words to complete the magic which casts the spell and, at the same time, wipes the spell from her memory.

A great many people enjoy this system and have extolled its virtues at length. If you and your players fall within that group, enjoy what you have and quit reading now. :)

Personally, I have from the very beginning found this system to be silly and nonsensical. Once you have learned something, that knowledge becomes part of you. You may then use that knowledge from that point forth. The whole idea of memorizing and then forgetting a spell seems absurd to me. This is especially true in the case where a wizard memorizes the same spell twice, casts and forgets one “copy” of the spell while remembering the other.

Beyond that, I find this system to be overly limiting and with some limits that, imo, serve no useful purpose.

Getting Started

The first step in adopting a new system is to identify what the old system does, what we like and don’t like about the old system, and what we want the new system to do.

Vancian magic places limits on how many spells a wizard may cast in a day. This is important. Limits are necessary to keep wizards from dominating the game. In addition to limiting the number of spells a wizard may cast in a day, Vancian magic imposes limits on a wizard’s versatility by forcing her to choose each morning which spells she wishes to have available that day. In addition, there are limits to how many of each level of spell may be prepared. These additional limits seem unnecessary to me as the primary limit to overall number of spells cast per day seems more than sufficient.

Imagine a situation where a wizard, who has not yet cast any spells that day, needs to cast a spell that she didn’t memorize that morning. It then becomes necessary for the party to hang around the area until that night so they may sleep, for the sole purpose of allowing the wizard to memorize the necessary spell the following morning. That’s a lot of unnecessary frustration and time lost due to a limitation that I just don’t see as being all that beneficial.

Spell Levels

A simple replacement to the Vancian system is to allow wizards to cast any spell they know, limited only by the number of spell levels they may cast in a single day, and the maximum spell level as determined by their class level. This imposes a limit on the relative power of the wizard, that is identical to the existing system, while increasing the versatility of the wizard. In my opinion, this later addition is important and a more realistic representation of a learned skill.

To do this we simply add up the spell levels of all the spells that may be memorized, per day, under the old system. In order to cast a spell, the wizard must have a number of available spell levels remaining equal to the level of the spell she wishes to cast. Like the old system, her available spell levels are refreshed to full each morning.

Hereafter is a table listing the number of spells available, by level, to wizards under the existing system, as well as the total number of spell levels for each level:


So, under the old system, a 7th level wizard would memorize four 1st level spells, three 2nd level spells, two 3rd level spells, and one 4th level spell. She was restricted to only being able to cast those spells that she had memorized. Under the new system, she could cast up to 20 spell levels worth of spells and could select from any spell (up to 4th level) that she knew. For instance, a wizard under the new system could cast:

  • Four 1st level spells, three 2nd level spells, two 3rd level spells, and one 4th level spell (just as she could under the old system).
  • or twenty 1st level spells.
  • or ten 2nd level spells.
  • or six 3rd level spells, and one 2nd level spell.
  • or five 4th level spells.
  • or any combination of spells totaling 20 spell levels.

The amount of power is identical to the old system but the versatility of the wizard has been increased. In addition, no time need be spent each morning waiting for players to select spells, and players need not fret over having to guess as to what spells they may need during the rest of the day.

Arguments Against

It has been argued that one 4th level spell may be more powerful than four 1st level spells, while others argue the exact reverse. It either case, it is clear that some people believe that the use of spell levels does not offer the same level of power balance that the Vancian system does. I do not happen to agree with them but each group must determine for themselves what system they prefer. For those that do not believe that spell levels provide a balanced measure of power (i.e. — one 4th level spell is equal in power to four 1st level spells), I would suggest that any perceived imbalance lies not with the system but with individual spells needing to have their spell level adjusted.

Spell Slots

A similar alternative to Vancian magic is the use of spell slots. In this system, a wizard has the exact same number of spells of each level available each day as she had under the Vancian system (and as listed in the table above) but the individual spells need not be memorized. Instead, the wizard may cast any spell she knows that is of the same level as the spell slot used to cast it.

In this case, our 7th level wizard has four 1st level spell slots, three 2nd level spell slots, two 3rd level spell slots and one 4th level spell slot. If a wizard wants to cast a 3rd level spell, she may select any 3rd level spell she knows, cast the spell, and mark off a 3rd level spell slot as having been used. When all spell slots have been used for the day, the wizard is out of spells. Spell slots all refresh each morning.

Spell Books

If the wizard no longer needs to memorize spells from her spell book each morning, what is the use of even having a spell book? The short answer is that there is no reason to have a spell book.

If you are ok with that, then dump the spell books and you’ll be fine. Personally, I like spell books and want to keep them around. If you use a spell level system or a spell slot system and want to retain spell books, you will need to invent a need for them. I actually use a spell energy system (which I will cover in the next post) so I’ve never taken the time to come up with a need for spell books under either of these systems. I have, however, come up with a pressing need for spell books under a spell energy system that you may be able to adapt.